A: At any moment, there are about 10 quintillion bugs on Earth. (That’s a 10 followed by 8 zeros!). The two insect repellents most commonly used to shoo them away are pesticides DEET, a chemical developed by the military, and permethrin, a synthetic version of substances found in chrysanthemums, which is used to treat clothing and other items.
Is DEET safe? Both DEET and permethrin are two pesticides that strongly discourage mosquitoes, flies, ticks, and other pests, but they don’t necessarily do it safely. Recent studies, for example find that the pesticide DEET is a neurotoxin that may cause long-term health effects on adults and children. Reports have linked DEET to rashes, headaches, seizures, and other conditions. For its part, permethrin is listed as a likely human carcinogen. Permethrin is a pesticide suspected of disrupting the endocrine and nervous systems. There’s also evidence that DEET and permethrin enhance each other’s effects when used together.
For a healthier approach to repelling bugs, skip these chemicals and practice prevention instead. Cover up your children with long sleeves and pants tucked into socks, and wear colors that blend in with your background. Avoid wearing scented products, which can attract insects. When you or your own children need a bug spray, try natural solutions like these:
- Repellents using soybean oil can protect against mosquitoes for up to eight hours.
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus-based repellents have been proven as effective as DEET (so says the CDC). One important note: do not use them on children under age three.
Remember that natural repellents may need to be applied more frequently to you and your children. They also don’t contain many of the other ingredients conventional sprays do, like petroleum byproducts and synthetic fragrance, which can also be harmful to human health. After all, the point is to harm the bugs — not the humans they’re nibbling on.
If you do choose to use DEET to repel insects despite the body of evidence against it, never use it on newborns under two months of age. Everyone else should apply a solution containing 30 percent DEET or less — studies show that higher concentrations offer no additional protection. When applying DEET, use sparingly, don’t let children apply it themselves, and always keep it away from their eyes, mouths, hands, and wounds.
Enjoy your time outdoors!